Thursday, December 17, 2009

Mistletoe Joy

Sometimes you really do find what you’re looking for when you least expect it. I had been disappointed so far this Christmas season in the search for mistletoe. The Hogans didn’t have it this year at their holiday decoration party. On walks I’d seen it high in old oaks in the woods, tantalizing but 70 feet out of reach.

So yesterday I was surprised and delighted when I parked my car outside the post office in Chapel Hill and saw mistletoe growing just above eye level on an old fruit tree. I couldn’t believe my luck.

I looked around to see if anyone else had noticed. Should I break off a sprig immediately, or could I wait until after mailing the package? I didn’t want to seem greedy. A middle-aged woman sat in the passenger seat of the car next to mine staring ahead, oblivious to the mistletoe glistening in the sun.

Mistletoe, Phoradendron leucarpum, is a parasite that grows on old trees, mainly oaks. Birds spread mistletoe when they pick up the sticky white berries and inadvertently attach them to tree limbs.

How could mistletoe dotted with white berries remain within easy reach during Christmas season outside of the post office, all places? Some women have an eye for jewelry, some men for cars. I look at plants and the natural setting – and now nature was giving me a gift.

Indeed, the ancients believed that encountering mistletoe was reason for celebration. We know mistletoe best for the tradition, dating back to at least sixteenth century England, of hanging a sprig in a doorway underneath which a man and woman greet with a kiss. Mistletoe was revered in ancient times, when the appearance of living green on barren tree branches in the dark days near the winter solstice seemed miraculous.

The Greek Pliny the Elder, writing in the decades before Christ, documented the belief that mistletoe contained the living spirit of the sacred oak tree. And the Druids worshiped mistletoe, believing it to have mystical properties.

Finding the mistletoe made me feel like a small child on Christmas morning. I couldn’t wait to get home and string it up in the kitchen, a lovely reminder to kiss my husband.

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